On Greatness, Part Two

I’m still mulling it over. What it means to be great, that is. Or more directly, why it means so much to us, to be great.

I ended part one questioning whether all of our striving really matters. For those of us who feel this incessant need to get better, to succeed, and who have this unnatural aversion to failing, at all costs, on any circumstances, perhaps this question is most pertinent to us.

Likely, each of us who have been consumed by our own drive to improve has received some form of encouragement that sounds a lot like the phrase, “It isn’t about the destination, but the journey.” But fortunate cookie platitudes tend not to serve us well. If anything, while meant as encouragement, this sort of statement feels more like a dismissal – as if it failed to recognize the fruits of our labor.

But when examined more thoughtfully (after our internal rage settles), there’s something to glean there, should we choose to extract it.

In itself, I do not believe “striving” is wrong. I don’t believe it’s a complete waste of time. I’m not advocating that we all consider being slackers OK. I’m just trying to get to the heart of the matter – that is, why we strive so hard.

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On my way to get a cup of coffee, I overheard some basketball talk by some bystanders (I have a radar for these sorts of things) and I heard someone ask if the Lakers are out (of the playoffs). His friend responded, “No, but Kobe is.”

Somehow I had missed this piece of news on the rare occasion that I hadn’t checked ESPN before going to bed.

Kobe Bryant is out of commission for 6-9 months due to a freak Achilles rupture, which, he admits, prompted him to take his venting to Facebook and release the following statement.

Full disclosure: It’s been a LONG time since I’ve cheered for “The Mamba”, “Vino”, or whatever he chooses to call himself. I’ve spent the greater part of my hoops fandom booing him relentlessly and making my disdain for him very public. I’m not a Laker fan, and I’m an even greater Kobe “hater”. Admittedly, this is all rather irrational. I’m merely playing my part, as any fan would, by adhering to a completely subjective set of rules. There’s no actual ill-will towards the man, and in the end, his injury is a tragic end to what many have otherwise described to be a mythical season that only bolsters his legend. Kobe may have always been a “bad guy” in my book, but the game is simply less exciting when the bad guy isn’t around  to be an adversary at all. I’m sure Reggie Miller will agree. So, hoping he’s back in 6 months. The game needs him, even if I don’t. 

This whole unfortunate incident happening to Kobe triggered my thoughts on greatness again.

His contributions to the game of basketball are irreplaceable. Like him or not, he’s a perfect example of someone who has strived so hard to be great, and actually got there. His legacy is sealed, regardless of whether he comes back from this, though in his mind, this is probably the last possible scenario he would’ve dreamed up before riding off into the sunset as one of the greatest players to ever lace ’em up.

And yet, his humanness, his frailty, was on full display two nights ago, as his mythical status came crashing down so suddenly and unexpectedly. A star was humbled. He took to Facebook to vent out his frustrations about seeing all of his efforts come to an end so abruptly, seeing hard work vanquished by this injury. You could tell he was legitimately angry.

I cannot blame him for reacting the way that he did, knowing the sort of effort he had put forth just to get his team over the edge. Many will say that this was a doomed season for the Lakers anyway. And yet, he strived. Kobe always found a motivator, whether it was inching their way to the playoffs or hitting a record scoring mark, there was always something fueling the fire. So what happens when the fire gets put out?

We can make our best guess that a character like Kobe (he is very much a special character in the NBA narrative) will come back and leave the game on his terms. But we have no clue what becomes of him as he recovers. We do not know what mere mortal-ness might actually inspire of him, and of us. We who love the game, who respect his greatness, will watch his recovery intently, hoping that in his fallenness, somehow, he still inspires.

And that’s the thing. We’re all well within our right to pursue greatness. Some of us strive for it our entire lives, give our every bit of time, energy, and passion, and will ourselves to becoming better. “Better” is only a stepping stone toward something else, towards “great”, perhaps, and push and push, and for some of us, we break.

In the pit, in the darkest moment, it is easy to believe that all the effort appears to have been wiped away. When the chase ends, the immediate feeling might be despair. That we failed.

And yet, should we find a moment of lucidity, a time when all the rage clears and we have our own thoughts again, perhaps we’ll find something worth holding onto after all. Something actually worth celebrating.

I don’t enjoy a story merely by how it ends. I enjoy it by how it’s told. In our lives, I’ll find a life of meaning based on how it’s lived, and not how it ends. There’s something to be had with the journey itself, and it has little to do with where we were headed.

I hope Kobe sees this. Perhaps in his quiet moments, he’ll see how far he had already gone.

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